December 15, 2011

The Great Click Track Debate: Part One

It's funny how polarized people seem to be these days. Politics, religion, sports . . . and yes, recording. If you've ever read an internet audio forum, you know what I'm talking about. People who are, I'm sure, very nice in real life, seem perfectly willing to use the anonymity of the Interwebs to tear each other to pieces over the smallest differences of opinion. And nothing seems to get the flame wars flowing quite like a debate over click tracks.

This week, I'd like to talk a bit about why you might choose to use or not use a click track for your recording projects. Next week, we'll talk about what to do when a project that should have used a click track . . . didn't.

Personally, I love click tracks. In the right hands, a click track is a powerful tool for good. Musicians can add layer upon layer of overdubs (often necessary in small home studios) without having to worry about following an unsteady tempo. A rock-solid pulse can make digital editing, arranging, and timing correction one thousand percent easier. For those of us who still can't quite believe that a splice edit used to involve an actual knife, a click track just seems to make sense.

A big argument against click tracks is the idea that a click track will automatically, just by its very existence, make music sound “robotic” or “unnatural.” There's a certain logic to this. Tempo is one of the tools in the musician's bag of tricks; speed up the music, and you're revving up the intensity, while a rallentado (gradual reduction of tempo) can add weight to a specific moment. Essentially, click-track nay-sayers argue that a fixed tempo is akin to tying one hand behind the musician's back.

Truth be told, tempo fluctuations just aren't used that often in rock and pop music. (Before you go scouring your iTunes library for examples that prove me wrong, please go back and reread the qualifier “that often”.) What the rock dudes and dudettes are doing is a little more subtle: They're playing behind or ahead of the beat. That snare hit might fall just a few milliseconds after the metronome click—not really enough that most of us would be able to point it out—but it's enough to add a relaxed feel to a groove. Conversely, a drummer can sound like he or she is pushing the band to go faster by playing just ahead of the steady click. (Punk guys and gals are great at this.) Playing ahead or behind is something that good musicians do more by feel than planning, but it's a powerful way to keep your click-track music from sounding mechanical.

That's not to say that a click track is the be-all-and-end-all of recording. Try to convince someone that Miles Davis' Kind of Blue could have done with some grid editing, and . . . well, go ahead and try it. And I'd be curious to hear a version of Edvard Grieg's “In the Hall of the Mountain King” that was recorded with dance-beat tempo consistency. (But only in the same way that I'd be curious to watch a video of a nasty car crash.)

And then there's the other end of the spectrum: Bands or artists who, for whatever reason, cannot keep a steady tempo. In the new, democratized era of music-making, just about anyone can be a “recording artist”--for better or worse. Basically, I look at it like this: Recording without a click track is like riding shotgun in a stick-shift car on twisty back roads—it's either a thing of subtle beauty, or it'll make you want to blow chunks.

So what do you do if you get stuck with tracks from this latter type of artist, the group that just can't play to a click? First, ask yourself if it's worth the considerable effort on your part—and it will be considerable—to get things “lined up.” You have to know when to walk away, as the song goes.

If you're convinced you've got a project on your hands that's worth a few dozen cups of coffee and some gray hairs, tune in next week for the exciting conclusion of The Great Click Track Debate.

Rock on,

Nathan Schied
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